Land of Fire & Ice: Volcanoes and Lakes of Central Chile

Pine forest in Chile.
A pine forest in Chile.

Central Chile’s Marvelous Lake District

By Shelley Seale

Volcano Villerrica in Chile. Photos by Shelley Seale.
Volcano Villarrica in Chile. Photos by Shelley Seale.

The Andes are a fact of life in Chile; the longest mountain range in the world spans from the southernmost tip and borders the entire country, continuing north the entire length of the continent.

The narrow country is, despite the sliver of land it occupies, a country of wild contrast.

In the north lies the driest desert in the world, the Atacama, while in the south, great glaciers move among the fjords and straits that connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

The central and southern part of Chile is as different from the northern desert as is possible. An hour and a half flight south from Santiago lands you near Pucón, the top outdoors destination in Chile with shimmering lakes, lush forests and rolling farmland, punctuated by the snowcapped volcanoes.

Perfectly Conical Cone

Volcano Villarrica is the most active, a perfectly conical cone that operates as a ski resort in the winter – providing one of the few places in the world where you can climb an active volcano, and then ski or snowboard back down.

Sunset on Villarrica Lake, in Chile. Shelley Seale photo.
Sunset on Villarrica Lake.

At two major national parks, Huerquehue and Villarrica, hiking through dense forests of monkey puzzle trees and huge ferns is a popular activity in this green, untamed land.

There are also underground caves formed by a lava flow to explore, zip-line canopy courses, rafting and kayaking, horseback riding, and world-class fly-fishing in the crystal clear waters.

But despite Pucón’s draw for adrenaline junkies and outdoor adventurers, nature here is a quiet one, and many people come simply to immerse themselves in peaceful, reflective journeys.

There is no better place to do this than the Hotel Antumalal, an exquisite, unique Mid-Century Modern masterpiece with the feel of a mountain lodge.

Perched like a diamond above Villarrica Lake, the Antumalal was built by Czechoslovakian newlyweds Guillermo and Catalina Pollak, who fled their home country in 1938. Guillermo’s parents and grandmother were taken to a concentration camp. As they were led away, his mother removed a Star of David necklace from around her throat and gave it to a neighbor, saying, “Make sure my son gets this someday.”

The Queen’s Bedroom

Catalina and Guillermo Pollak, founders of the Hotel Antumalal.
Catalina and Guillermo Pollak, founders of the Hotel Antumalal.

Meanwhile, Guillermo and his bride were trying to make a new life in Chile, starting their dream which eventually turned into Hotel Antumalal – a place that has seen guests over the decades from Queen Elizabeth to James Stewart and Neil Armstrong.

The modernist retreat was designed in 1945 by a young Chilean architect, Jorge Elton, who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright. It shows—the Bauhaus style design is very “Wrightesque,” with walls of glass, warm stone and wood, and all surrounded by magnificent gardens and soothing water.

Nearly 40 years later, that Star of David necklace finally made its way back to Guillermo in Chile. I was having dinner one night with Rony Pollak, his daughter who now runs the retreat, and it glimmered against her neck.

“This is more valuable to me than Antumalal,” she said as her fingers lovingly caressed the symbol.

Nature Comes First

Termas Geometricas.
Termas Geometricas.

Rony explains that for her parents, nature came first and the hotel was designed to frame and honor it. Handmade furniture and rugs are made locally, and much of the flowers and ingredients in the restaurant come from their own extensive gardens.

The warm fireplace living rooms or outdoor seating areas overlooking the jewel of a lake can captivate you until all the worries of the world seem to melt away.

But if even that isn’t enough, in about 90 minutes you can be at an incredible naturally soothing resource: Termas Geométricas, natural hot springs with more than 20 pools of varying temperatures, surrounded by forests and wooden walkways.

The place has a style and feel that is more Japanese Zen than Chilean and is a cure for both body and soul. Lying in a 40-degree-Celsius pool amid snow-covered trees and hillocks, I could literally feel any stress – indeed any coherent thoughts – melting away.

Moving between differently heated thermal pools creates increased energy in the body, and if you’re really brave you can end with a cold plunge. (Author’s disclosure: I did not do this, thank you very much). Afterward, a cozy lodge is a perfect place to have tea or coffee and a light meal in front of the central firepit.

Meeting the Mapuche

Mapuche crafts made of wool.
Mapuche crafts made of wool in Curarrehue, Chile.

The Pucón area is also a place to explore ancient culture and cuisine. The Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group, has a number of cultural centers, artisan craft cooperatives, and festivals.

Curarrehue is a small village where 80 percent of the inhabitants are Mapuche and the center point of the culture. A small museum and gathering place where you can hear stories and watch demonstrations of traditional weaving or cooking.

La Cocina de Elisa

A couple of blocks away on the main square is La Cocina de Elisa, a small restaurant owned by Elisa Cea Epuin, whose culinary skills have drawn several Chilean presidents.

Relaxing at the hotel.
Relaxing at the hotel.

Elisa cooks hearty, traditional Mapuche recipes and innovative dishes based on the piñon, the seed of the local Araucaria pine. Elisa generally greets visitors with a drink, inviting them to give tribute to Pachamama, or Mother Earth.

“When Chileans open a bottle of liquor or wine, we pour a few drops on the ground before we drink,” Elisa explains in Spanish. “The first drops are for mother earth.

This honors Pachamama, and asks her to bless us with a good harvest.”

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